It’s not easy being among the workers angry about the decisions people at the top are making every day. Some leaders think that decision-making at a nonprofit can be hard to understand. Often the people protesting their decisions do understand. In fact, they are often protesting because they understand. The situation can be stressful and frustrating, like being in the back seat of a car that’s headed off a cliff. I’ve relieved the stress with my peers after a difficult meeting or over a beer after work. Often those of us who are talking agree about the problem and have ideas for what we must do instead. But while talking someone usually catches themselves in apology. “Sorry,” they say. “I know, I know, I’m preaching to the choir.”
What does that mean, and why is preaching to the choir so bad? The rationale is that we’re directing a sermon to the choir, a group that shows up without fail every week. If anyone knows the words to the preacher’s sermon, it’s the people who have heard it dozens of times. In the workplace, it means we’re describing an issue to people who already know what’s up. What we’re saying is probably not new information to them.
People often shut themselves down when they realize they’re doing it. If they do proceed, they’ll use the saying as a caveat to what they’re about to say. In the workplace it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it can be, but I’ll describe both.
when to go ahead and preach
Venting. Sometimes it’s helpful for people to let off some steam about a situation or conflict at work. Talking about it can help people feel less alone, even when they already know about an issue. It normalizes the issue as a problem and validates concerns that a person might have. It tells the group, “it’s not you, it’s… this place.” (I like adding an eye roll here)
Clarifying. Preaching to the choir can help the “choir” refine their message. Talking about an issue more than once helps refine the points we’re trying to make. For more complex issues, it can help us get deeper into potential root causes. Why is this issue important to us? What are all the angles here? What might we have missed? What might the decision-makers have missed? Or you might think you’re preaching to the choir but the choir hasn’t heard this one yet.
Organizing. There’s power in unity. Sometimes venting leads to clarifying your message, which can lead to organizing opposition. The more we talk about an issue, the clearer and more consistent we can make our demands. It’s powerful to have many people come forward on a single issue. It can create a clearer message for decision-makers can react to or even change their mind. Preaching to the choir in this case can help create alliances. Addressing everyone’s problems build group cohesion and adds reasons for our concern.
when to dismiss the choir
Venting goes on forever. Preaching to the choir when nothing ever changes can lead some folks to feel helpless. We’re never going to change a system if our venting doesn’t lead to a plan of action. Without it, we’re just rehashing the suffering that we share as coworkers or peers. And given all that, our situation might actually be helpless! There might be nothing we can do but vent. If that’s the case, focus your energy on finding a way out of it.
Creating an echo chamber. Everyone’s different, even in a group where people agree on something. It’s also possible to preach to a very small choir of people who agree with each other but don’t have anything new to add. That doesn’t make change easy, either. If your choir here isn’t diverse by gender, race, and class, your preaching may be missing something.
Being in the wrong church. Sometimes we think we’re preaching to the choir but we’re way off track. It might feel like we all agree, but one or all of us are out of step with each other. Could you be misreading the situation? Is it your sermon we should be listening to? Should you even be the preacher? If you’re in a place of power to change the situation you’re preaching about, you need to change your approach. How can you instead rally the group to help you make the best decision?
Rebecca Solnit wrote for Harper’s Magazine about preaching to the choir. She describes Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches as a really effective form of preaching to the choir. His speech, she says, “isn’t alchemy; it doesn’t transform what people believe. It’s electricity: it galvanizes them to act.”
Preaching to the choir doesn’t have to be a bad thing. When done with a purpose, it can help us learn all the words.